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Film and the Arts

Tito Muñoz Directs Juilliard Orchestra at Lincoln Center

Tito Muñoz conducts Juilliard Orchestra. Photo by Claudio Papapietro

At Lincoln Center’s Alice Tull Hall on the evening of Saturday, January 27th, I had the immense pleasure of attending a superb concert of twentieth century symphonic music—continuing a terrific season—presented by the marvelous Juilliard Orchestra, here under the remarkable direction of Tito Muñoz.

The program began brilliantly with a splendid account of Silvio Revueltas’s extraordinary, too infrequently played Sensemayá, based on a poem by Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén. An amazing soloist, Fangzhou Ye, then entered the stage for an excellent performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s awesome Piano Concerto No. 2. The initial Andantino movement opens reflectively but soon becomes more passionate—even volatile—for much of its length, although it ends quietly. The brisk, ensuing—and appropriately and characteristically playful—Scherzo—marked Vivace—is virtuosic, propulsive and colorful, while theModeratomovement that follows is dramatic and portentous but with some meditative—as well as some quirkier, more jocular—passages, eventually acquiring a dance-like, almost jazzy rhythm, but it also ends softly and somewhat abruptly. The finale—an Allegro tempestuoso—is more hurried in pace at the outset, but becomes more measured, even lyrical, if eventually more agitated and concludes very excitingly.

The second half of the program was even stronger, comprised of a thrilling realization of Igor Stravinsky’s dazzling ballet score, Petrouchka, in its 1947 revision. The artists deservedly received an enthusiastic ovation.

Musical Review—“Once Upon a Mattress” at Encores With Sutton Foster

Once Upon a Mattress
Music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer
Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer
Directed by Lear deBessonet; choreography by Lorin Latarro
Performances January 24-February 4, 2024
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, NYC
Sutton Foster and cast in Once Upon a Mattress (photo: Joan Marcus)
Occasionally role and performer combine for a happy marriage. The musical Once Upon a Mattress, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, is one example. When the show opened on Broadway in 1959, Carol Burnett played Princess Winnifred, the last hope for a kingdom desperately needing a new bride for Prince Dauntless because all other marriages will be able to take place. By all accounts, Burnett’s unique and physical style was perfect for this slightly silly crowd-pleaser whose tuneful songs by Mary Rodgers covered up for the uneven lyrics and book.
Fast-forward 65 years to Sutton Foster headlining a two-week Encores run at City Center. Since it’s been adapted and updated by Amy Sherman-Palladino (with whom Foster worked on the TV series Bunheads) so there are a few topical references and fewer goofy characters running around. But it all hinges on Foster, and she proves herself as physically adept—in different but equally agile ways—as Burnett. 
Of course, Foster’s vocal pipes and comedic facility have never been questioned, and she acquits herself magnificently in her big musical numbers, “The Swamps of Home” and “Happily Ever After,” and she can rat-a-tat the rush of quips and one liners as well as anyone. But it’s her physical prowess throughout that’s simply astonishing. 
From the moment she crawls over the castle wall to make her initial entrance through her bounding around the stage during “Shy” and the first-act closer “Song of Love” to, even more impressively at the end, displaying incredibly precise movements while trying futilely to fall asleep, showing herself as a gymnast nearly on par with Simon Biles, Foster's performance is extraordinary. That she does occasional Carol Burnett-like mannerisms is a bit excessive, but who cares? (Skylar Fox is credited with “Physical Comedy & Effects,” so he may deserve plaudits as well.)
Director Lear deBessonet and choreographer Lorin Latarro shrewdly don’t foreground Foster; for all her talent and stamina, the Broadway superstar fits easily into the harmonious musical-comedy ensemble that includes such premium hams as Harriet Harris, Michael Urie, David Patrick Kelly and Cheyenne Jackson. Meanwhile, Nikki Renée Daniels sounds as ravishing as she looks, while J. Harrison Ghee—the breakthrough star of last season’s Some Like It Hot—consolidates his singing, dancing and comic talents in the expanded role of the Jester.
Yet, even as the Encores Orchestra sounds sumptuous under Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s musical direction and David Zinn’s amusing sets and Andrea Hood’s colorful costumes make it a visual treasure, this is Sutton Foster’s show all the way. Which brings up the question: will this Mattress transfer to Broadway after Foster is finished with Sweeney Todd?

January '24 Digital Week IV

In-Theater Releases of the Week 
The Zone of Interest 
Jonathan Glazer’s loose adaptation of a Martin Amis novel looks at the banality of evil through the family of Auschwitz Commandant Hoss, who lives next door to the death camp with his wife Hedwig and their five children, including a toddler. They go about their daily lives, hosting parties, the kids going to school, the parents planning their postwar future, all while he works as a large cog in the murderous machine that was the Holocaust.
Though brilliantly executed, the film comes off as a stunt that doesn’t do much more than repeat sequences where what is going on in their lives and in their world goes unmentioned for 105 minutes. There’s extraordinarily effective sound design and Glazer allows himself flourishes like a local girl hiding food at night where the camp workers will be sure to find it the next day, shot in stark B&W; but the ending, in which modern-day custodians at the Auschwitz museum are seen going about their daily work while Hoss retches in an empty Nazi office building, is a meretricious copout. 
The Peasants 
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Filmed using the same astonishing hand-painted technique as the 2017 feature Loving Vincent—also made by the duo responsible for that earlier success, DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman—this picturesque journey through four seasons in a small Polish village, centered around a beautiful free spirit, Magda, who loves a married farmer but agrees to marry his widowed elderly father. What ensues is alternately sorrowful and affecting, horrible and hopeful.
It’s old-fashioned in its storytelling—the original novel, by Polish author Władysław Reymont, won the Nobel prize for Literature—but the dazzling colors embedded in the strikingly rendered animation make this breathtaking to watch.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Samson et Dalila 
(Opus Arte)
French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ most successful opera, a musically poetic retelling of the Biblical story of the Jewish strongman Samson extracting revenge on his lover Dalila and the Philistines, is given an intelligent 2022 reading at London’s Royal Opera House.
Well staged by director Richard Jones, the opera showcases two monumental performances: South Korean tenor Seokjong Baek as Samson and Latvian superstar mezzo Elīna Garanča as Delilah, particularly in her ravishing second-act arias. There are short extras of conductor Claudio Pappano discussing the opera, and the hi-def video and audio are first-rate.
The Sea Shall Not Have Them/Albert, RN 
(Cohen Film Collection)
This pair of World War II dramas, crisply directed by Lewis Gilbert (who would later go on to direct three James Bond features), is so obscure that even Leonard Maltin’s comprehensive movie guide doesn’t include them.
1954’s The Sea Shall Not Have Them follows the difficult days after a crew of British airmen are shot down, adrift in the North Sea. And 1953’s Albert, RN is set in a POW camp where British and American naval officers try and escape. Both pictures, which feature typically tuneful scores by the great British composer Malcolm Arnold, look quite good in new hi-def transfers.
Silent Night 
Veteran director John Woo is at his best in long, choreographed action sequences, and his latest feature has that in spades as he follows a grieving father who goes to war against gang members who killed his son in a drive-by shooting. We watch him training, stalking, finally attacking, and Woo follows suit, heightening the tension until it’s ready to explode—it’s too bad that he loses it at the end with a ridiculous ending in which our hero acts stupidly confronting his final adversary and fatally hesitates.
Still, the 100 minutes move quickly, and Joel Kinnaman plays the silent—hence the title—man on a mission with an impressive singlemindedness. Unfortunately, as his sorrowful wife, Catalina Sandino Moreno is wasted. The film looks superb on Blu; lone extra is a making-of featurette. 
Wolf Pack 
(Well Go USA)
In this action-heavy adventure, a paramilitary-trained physician (!) looking to uncover the truth behind his father’s suspicious killing joins a group of mercenaries that discovers a vast conspiracy that could threaten the lives of millions of innocent civilians.
It’s not the most original tale, but writer-director Michael Chang has dialed up the fighting sequences to 11, and many fans of this genre of filmmaking will surely overlook everything else: the routine plotting, acting and characterizations. There’s an excellent Blu-ray transfer.
DVD Releases of the Week 
Billions—Complete 6th Season
Billions—Complete Series 
Obviously season five sans Axe was subpar by Billions standards, so for the series’ final season look who’s back: in an effort to stop the Trump-like Prince from succeeding in his shady campaign to become U.S. president, the unlikely team of D.A. Chuck Rhoades and his former enemy Axe becomes an actual thing. While it doesn’t reach the delirious heights of earlier seasons—indeed, it comes off as even more contrived than anything else in the show’s checkered history—there’s fun to be had as Prince tries to ward off Chuck, Wendy, Axe and all the rest. The acting by Paul Giamatti, Maggie Siff, Asia Kate Dillon, David Constabile, Condola Rashad, Corey Stoll and Damien Lewis is much better than last season’s phone-in performances. Extras are two featurettes. 
The complete boxed set of all six seasons of Billions gives the show’s fans much more bang for their buck, with all 84 episodes included on 28 discs. Also featured are more than an hour’s worth of extras that encompass several making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes.
CD Release of the Week
Bridget Kibbey—Crossing the Ocean 
Harp virtuoso Bridget Kibbey, who has already demonstrated her bona fides in much of the 19th- and 20th-century repertoire for her instrument, on this new disc performs works by contemporary composers whom she has commissioned. The result is as beguiling and affecting as anything she’s ever done, and she again shows why she is second to none in these new pieces for solo harp.
There are six composers from six countries, including David Bruce, Kati Agócs, Kinan Azmeh, and Paquito d’Rivera, who have written varied works that showcase her astonishing technique, with a bonus on the lovely set of Three Butterfly Songs by Avner Dorman: the still formidable soprano Dawn Upshaw. But make no mistake: this is Kibbey’s show, and she is the star, especially on Du Yun’s poignant closer, The Ocean Within. Kibbey will show off her prowess in local concerts at Lincoln Center on February 10, Weill Recital Hall/Carnegie Hall on February 21, and Bridgehampton, Long Island, on Apri1 13.

Boston Symphony Orchestra Play Carnegie Hall

Boston Symphony Orchestra led by Andris Nelsons, Music Director and Conductor with Seong-Jin Cho, Piano. Photo by Chris Lee

At Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium on the evening of Monday, January 29th, I had the pleasure of attending an excellent performance—the first of two on consecutive nights—of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, admirably conducted by Andris Nelsons. The second concert was a presentation of Dmitri Shostakovich’s remarkable opera after a famous story by Nikolai LeskovLady Macbeth of Mtensk. (The same narrative was later memorably filmed in Yugoslavia as Siberian Lady Macbeth—released in 1962—by the great Polish director, Andrzej Wajda.)

The program opened promisingly with a marvelous realization of Tania León’s challenging but rewarding Stride from 2019—according to the program note by Robert Kirzinger, it was “composed on a commission from the New York Philharmonic, premiered in 2020, and won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Music”—which is notable especially for its compelling orchestration. The composer’s statement on it is worth quoting in full: 

When the New York Philharmonic reached out to me about writing for this project celebrating the 19th Amendment, I confess I only knew about it generally. I started doing research, reading Susan B. Anthony’s biography, her statements. It was tremendous to see the inner force that she had. Then I started looking for a title before starting the piece—not the way I usually do it. The word “stride” reflected how I imagined her way of not taking “no” for an answer. She kept pushing and pushing and moving forward, walking with firm steps until she got the whole thing done. That is precisely what I mean by StrideStride has some of what, to me, are American musical influences, or at least American musical connotations. For example, there is a section where you can hear the horns with the wa-wa plunger, reminiscent of Louis Armstrong, getting that growl. It doesn’t have to be indicative of any particular skin tone; it has to do with the American spirit. When I discovered American music, Louis Armstrong actually was the first sound that struck me. When I moved here, the only composers I knew anything about were Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin. The night I arrived at Kennedy Airport, I was picked up by a Cuban couple from the Bronx, who allowed me to stay on their sofa. I looked at the stairs outside of their building, and I started crying “Maria!” They were confused, and I explained that in Cuba I’d heard the song by Leonard Bernstein. I later worked with Bernstein, and we were very close in his later years. When I first arrived here I couldn’t speak English … but I knew how to say “Maria.”

The composer, who attended the event, afterward ascended to the stage to receive the audience’s acclaim.

An amazing soloist, Korean virtuoso Seong-Jin Cho, then joined the musicians for a brilliant rendition of Maurice Ravel’s awesome Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. In a discussion with critic and musicologist M. D. Calvocoressi, the composer affirmed that: “In a work of this sort, it is essential to avoid the impression of insufficient weight in the sound-texture, as compared to a solo part for two hands. So I have used a style that is more in keeping with the consciously imposing style of the traditional concerto.” The piece begins ominously and builds to an apotheosis; the piano then enters dramatically with a cadenza that quickly becomes characteristically Impressionistic in style, a passage that Ravel described as “like an improvisation.” The orchestral interludes in this Lento section attain a considerable grandeur. At its outset, the Allegro that comprises the balance of the work has a quasi-martial ethos reminiscent of music in the early scores of Igor Stravinsky, although before long it is abundantly inflected with jazzy elements with some playful measures. The composer commented that, “Only gradually is one aware that the jazz episode is actually built up from the themes of the first section.” The concerto concludes powerfully, if abruptly. An enthusiastic ovation elicited a dazzling encore which was one of the highlights of the program: Franz Liszt’s exquisite Consolation No. 3 in D-flat Major.

The second half of the evening was comparable in strength, consisting of an accomplished reading of Stravinsky’s magnificent The Rite of Spring, Pictures from Pagan Russia. The first part, The Adoration of the Earth, has a stunning and sudden climax, while the second, The Sacrifice, also closes exhilaratingly. The artists were ardently applauded.

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